It's that time of year again, when thousands of parents pack their high schoolers onto a plane or into the SUV and set off on road trips across the nation to a half-dozen colleges or more, hoping to find that one special school that's the right fit for their student.
These visits are often the deciding factor for many juniors figuring out where to apply and for seniors picking where to enroll. And colleges know this. The admissions tours they offer are nothing more than a sales pitch -- their last chance to nab you with a dazzling display of their offerings.
So universities go to great lengths (and lots of expense) to ensure that their campuses, their dorms and their students stand out from all the rest. Often that means locating the admissions center next to the most convenient parking, providing free coffee and casting the friendliest students as tour guides. Even the music you hear in admissions offices as you wait for your tour has probably been carefully selected -- maybe even by students -- to set the tone for your visit.
But as a higher education reporter for the Washington Post who has taken lots of campus tours with kids trying to make that big decision, I've learned that most of this is just window dressing. The only way to get a true feel for the culture of a university and its students is to simply hang out. My best advice? If you're heading out on a college visit, give yourself enough time to pretend to be a college kid for a day: Lounge in a coffee shop near campus, read the student newspaper, attend a women's softball game or an a capella concert, go jogging across the campus, have dinner at a bar with sticky floors, or simply ride the campus bus for a different kind of tour.
If you want a less choreographed, more authentic college road trip, here are my tips:
* Quality, not quantity. I've known a lot of kids who've gone on epic college road trips, visiting two or three schools a day with Mom or Dad and spending thousands of dollars in the process. Trust me, you don't need to do that. If you're just starting your college search, the first thing you need to do is decide what type of school you're most interested in. A flagship university with tens of thousands of students and major sports? A private liberal arts school? A religious university? A smaller state school? A historically black university? An elite or Ivy League school?
If you are in a region with universities and colleges nearby, do a couple of day trips close to home before driving hundreds of miles or buying plane tickets. Lots of schools also offer virtual tours on their websites that can give you a feel for the place without your having to set foot on campus. If you're a little picky about where you visit, you can spend more time at the schools that truly interest you.
* Plan ahead. I know, I know, you're swamped with all the demands of high school life. But you still need to devote an hour or two to planning your visits. Waiting until the last minute might mean not getting an appointment at the admissions center or battling crowds or finding that spring break has turned the campus into a ghost town. Plus, college-town hotels book up quickly -- especially during graduation and before major football games.
* Research, research, research. Check out Twitter accounts and hashtags related to the university, its leaders or its student clubs for a less filtered look at what's happening on campus. Make student newspaper websites and student-run blogs part of your regular reading, so you can learn about issues that the official tours don't mention (e.g., budget cuts, athletic department scandals or hazing investigations). And tap your social network for recommendations when setting your itinerary. Before I visit a campus, I always ask my Facebook friends and Twitter followers for suggestions, which is how I discovered the massive ice cream cones at Penn State's Berkey Creamery, the theatrical "Hahvahd Tour" at Harvard University and the Cheese Shop deli near the College of William & Mary.
* Do it on a student budget. You're not getting the authentic college experience if you dine at the best restaurants in town, shop at overpriced boutiques and book direct flights. That's not how most college students live. So pretend that you're already in college as you make travel plans (take the bus, not the train), search for cheap lunch spots (burrito cart trumps room service) and entertain yourself (pick the free lacrosse game, not the outlet malls). College towns are flush with free or nearly free events, including lectures, concerts, plays, gallery shows, movies, cultural festivals and sporting events. Check out the university website or student newspaper for ideas.
* Ditch your parents. At least for a little bit. They won't be moving to college with you, so it's best to start operating independently now. They can use the time to explore on their own or bond with younger siblings whom they've dragged along.
* Stay somewhere cool. If you know a current student, ask if you can crash in his or her dorm room, Greek house or off-campus apartment for the night. Nothing gives you a better feel for a campus than actually living there for a day or two. If that's not possible (and obviously parents can't make such arrangements), find a hotel, motel or bed-and-breakfast within walking distance of campus. Some universities even operate their own lodging, which is usually decorated in school colors and staffed by students.
* Work out on-site. My favorite way to see a campus -- and get a feel for how safe it is -- is to go for an early-morning or late-evening jog through the grounds. Take a look at a campus map and pick a route that takes you through the most scenic spots, or drop in on an informal student running group. Another option is to buy a day pass to the rec center so you can swim, attend a yoga class taught by a student or even go rock climbing.
* Avoid trouble. Don't go to parties. Don't drink if you're younger than 21. Don't do anything illegal. An easy way to blow your chance at getting into your dream school is to have your name show up on the police blotter.
* Bag the souvenir T-shirt. Believe me, college-branded T-shirts and sweatshirts are to high school fashion what bar mitzvah T-shirts and sweat shirts were to middle-school fashion. Sure, everyone's collecting and wearing them right now, but as soon as you graduate to the next level, your tastes will probably change. So rather than sink your money into a temporary wardrobe, minimize the campus bookstore shopping and opt to mark your trip in a more creative way.
Here's an idea: Take a photo on each campus you visit -- maybe posing with the school mascot or in front of a university sign or on the steps of the academic department where you want to study -- and compile them into a Facebook photo album named "College Road Trip 2012."